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Jo Swinson’s misguided maternalism

August 3rd, 2009 Posted in Uncategorized by

albaWe Liberal Democrats do love a good banning. This is odd for a party that professes liberalism, a belief that individuals should be free to pursue their own ends as they see fit; a philosophy that trusts people to make choices for themselves.

Sadly, too many within our party do not, as Gladstone said to the Tories, trust the people. And for our parliamentary party, the people are all-too-often seen as immoral exploiters who need to be reined in, or as dumb victims who need to be saved from themselves.

Jo Swinson has today announced that the Liberal Democrats will seek to ban the “airbrushing” (I think they actually use computers these days) of images of models in campaigns aimed at under-16s, while campaigns aimed at older audiences will need to state that the photographs have been touched up.

Jo suggests that “We need to help protect children from these pressures” – referring to the effect on their psyche and behaviour of seeing images of beautiful people against whom they may measure themselves – “and we need to make a start by banning airbrushing in adverts aimed at them.”

Frankly, the whole argument is somewhat patronising to young women.  As I have written before:

[The] argument is that the modelling industry is causing harm to women and particularly to teenage girls by socialising them to believe that a distorted parody of the natural human physique is an ideal-type to which they should aspire.gladdy

Implicit in this argument is the assumption that women, and particularly teenage girls (“Won’t somebody please think of the children”), are too stupid to make an informed judgement and too easily influenced by corporate imagery to be trusted to care for their own health. There follows the classic argument for censorship: the people are stupid, so must be protected from themselves.”

What underlies all this is not a concern with the practice of airbrushing but a long history of attacks upon modelling and the appreciation of physical beauty in general. It is part of an ongoing campaign that includes attempts to ban size 0 models, pornography and beauty contests. For the intellectually and philosophically inclined, judging people by their physical appearance is anathema.  As Jo herself says, “The focus on women’s appearance has really got out of hand.”

There are several reasons for thinking that this policy is misguided. Firstly, “physical beauty” is in essence a snap-judgement of the genetic worth of a potential mate, and as such it is entirely functional at a basic biological level. That people are more discerning genetically is merely a function of wider choice: back when most of us never left the village in which we were born, we probably had the choice of a small handful of partners of a compatible age from among our neighbours (if we had any choice, that is).

Secondly, there is no way of measuring (as Jo implies that she has) that “young girls are under more pressure now than they were even five years ago”. This is also part of a historic trend, in this case the tendency to think that the youth today are either more badly behaved or are under more pressure than ever before. If every generation that feared for that the next was suffering more than the last was correct, we would by now be giving birth to a generation of sociopaths and neurotics.  Some people think we are.

Thirdly, even if women are objectified and children are overly conscious of their bodies, there is no proven causal link between these phenomena and the practice of airbrushing. Jo is therefore committing one of the politicians cardinal sins: thrashing out with the one tool at her disposal – legislative coercion – based on a hunch.

Fourthly, if some people viewing pictures of models react in an adverse way, the fault lies in the viewer and not in that which is viewed. If government must intervene (and it is not clear that it should) then it should intervene at the point where the harm occurs, which is in the perception of the viewer. As with the freedom of expression argument (which does apply, but which most liberal audiences should understand implicitly and so not need me to rehearse) one should not respond to perceived offence by banning the offender from expressing themselves.

swinsonOf course, the reason why it is the marketing industry and not teenagers’ perceptions that are the target of Jo’s proposals is obvious. Just as water always follows the easiest path downhill, so politicians find it easier to tackle any problem by banning something rather than helping those who react badly to it; and they also find it easier to assault the liberties of “businesses” (which in practice means the minority of the public that owns and runs the companies that are the subject of today’s broadside) than to address the faults of “people” (the larger numbers who might not like to be told that they are responsible for their own behaviour).

Again quoting my previous article:

Even if it is true that the existence or prominence of [airbrushed] models adversely influences people’s behaviour (which has in no way been proven), it is still not government’s role to protect individuals from their own actions. The state’s role is to protect people from being coerced by other people; to allow the individual the maximum freedom that does not restrict the freedom of others. If an individual leads an unhealthy lifestyle, the government should not interfere to make them more healthy. We would not countenance force feeding or forced exercise, and I hope that we would not ban tobacco. Similarly, we should not ban images of thin models, people sitting on their sofas eating chips, or smokers (a ludicrous suggestion, I’m sure you’ll agree).

This is a classic censorship issue, an attack on freedom of expression masked as a (paternalistic [or in this case, maternalistic]) effort to protect individuals from themselves. It is a shame that our [elected] members support it.

Perhaps the final damning piece of evidence that this is half-baked, ill thought out and arrogant comes from Harriet Harman, who said of the policy that “We”, meaning her discredited party and government, “are happy to back this campaign.”

Enough said?

57 Responses to “Jo Swinson’s misguided maternalism”

  1. Russel Urlaub Says:

    A business proposal is produced to reflect the professionalism of your organisation and is there to persuade a buyer that your goods or services are valuable to them. Together with any other collateral it is the proposition which you are giving to the client and what will hopefully win much more function for the company.

  2. Tom Dixon Says:

    The foolish of Jo Swinsons ludicrous proposal most concretely depends on her utter ignorance of photography. Any photographer of any level of skill will make myriad judgements in the course of their work (eg, focal length, angle, of shot, elevation of shot, exposure, backlighting, etc, etc, etc) that have effects upon the image which are more far reaching than even the most extensive digital “air brushing”.

    Take as an exmple this very image of Jo Swinson herself shown here: An unwisely high contrast shot from above with a mildly wide focal length. The angle of view, elevation of the shot and contrast compresses her height whilst exagerating the perspective effects upon her head in relation to her body and makes her complexion appear red and blotchy. Entirely without recourse to “airbrushing” it altogether makes her look like a troll out of Lord of The Rings! Any decent photographer could have made her look a thousand times better without a moments worth of digital “airbrushing”.

    So “airbrushing” or no “airbrushing” (and quite what people like this imagine they mean by the phrase is itself unclear) the ways in which a photograph represents a subject offer almost unlimited control on the resulting image. It always has. It always will. Its the nature of the medium and theres nothing you can do about it!

  3. Tom Dixon Says:

    That was ment to read “foolishness…”

  4. Tom Dixon Says:

    …which in turn was meant to read “meant to read…”

  5. Liberal Vision » Blog Archive » Government brainwashing works – and it’s for your own good Says:

    […] Graham has today posted an attack on an article I wrote two years ago on the then-germane topic of Lib Dem policy attacking the enhancement of photographs, particularly […]

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